In Our Time: The California Gold Rush

The California Gold Rush was sparked by the discovery of gold in a river in January 1848 and not only did it make some individuals rich but it also had a significant impact on the politics and economy of the USA and the world. Discussing it on In Our Time were Kathleen Burk (University College London), Jacqueline Fear-Segal (University of East Anglia) and Frank Cogliano (University of Edinburgh).

When gold was discovered in what would become the state of California the land it was discovered on was not actually under the control of the USA. War between the USA and Mexico ended in February 1848 with the signing of a treaty that had the Mexicans cede that part of the continent to the USA. I imagine once they knew what they’d signed away they weren’t best pleased. At the time the area was inhabited by around 150,000 Native Americans, down from a previous population of 300,000 due to diseases and other effects of the colonisation of the Americas by Europeans. There were also around 6,000 Mexicans and other assorted immigrants.

News of the discovery of gold was initially slow to spread, and didn’t get taken seriously by the outside world until late 1848. Thus the gold rush proper was in 1849 – and until I listened to this programme I hadn’t really put two & two together and realised that the song Oh My Darling Clementine refers to the gold rush (“In a cavern, in a canyon, Excavating for a mine, Dwelt a miner forty niner, And his daughter Clementine.”).

In 1849 the population of the area increased significantly – by 1850 there were 100,000 settlers who had been drawn there by the gold. Most of the new immigrants were young men looking to get rich. The region was not yet a state, and it had none of the apparatus of government – amongst other things no law enforcement nor even laws. One of the experts described it as like “a stag party, they came and trashed California”. Most came to mine gold and hopefully make their fortunes that way, but those who came to sell supplies (mining equipment & food alike) to the miners were the ones who were most likely to become rich. This second category included Leland Stanford, who founded Stanford University.

These new settlers came from all over the world. From all 21 states of the USA and from 25 other countries. Not just Europeans either, there were settlers from various South American countries and from China. The journey to the territory was an arduous one no matter where you were coming from, and particularly so from Europe or the East Coast of the USA. By land it took 5 months, and there are few places where it’s possible to cross the Sierra Nevada mountains. By sea – you could cross the Pacific from China, or sail round the bottom of South America, or cross the continent at Panama (by land, the canal is not there yet) – all of which options have their difficulties and dangers.

The scale of mining operations progressed quickly. At first the stereotypical image of the lone miner panning for gold in a river was pretty accurate, and it was possible for individuals to set up on their own and strike rich. But as time went on mining techniques became more intensive and required more capital to set up. No longer did a lone incomer have much of a chance of getting his lucky strike on his own. As it became more industrialised it also became more destructive. By this I mean they were doing things like diverting rivers and blowing up parts of the mountains in order to extract more gold. As well as this physical destruction of the environment there was also a lot of mercury used in the gold extraction processes – which ended up in the rivers of California.

California may’ve started out as a lawless place in 1849 but it became incorporated as a state of the USA very quickly. In 1852 they had got themselves organised and went to the Senate with their constitution already written and asked to be made a state. At this point they already had double the number of people necessary to be considered. This had an unforeseen knock-on effect – they were the 31st state and were a free state. At this point in the USA’s history tensions were rising between the North (free states) and the South (slave states) although it would be another few years before the Civil War broke out in 1861. To ease the tension states were being admitted in pairs, one slave and one free at a time. However California’s swift self-organisation side-stepped around that procedure and unbalanced the Senate. Utah and New Mexico were admitted as slave states to re-balance it but didn’t actually have a slave owning economy.

And in a reminder that the issues are never simple: despite being a free state California is actually one of the first to enact institutionally racist laws. One axis of this is the regulation specifically of Chinese immigration. Another is protection and governance laws concerning the Native American population. Despite the idealistic name these laws actually disenfranchised and dispossessed Native Americans. There was also official encouragement of the lynching of Chinese & Native Americans who “stepped out of line”.

Obviously the biggest effect of the gold rush was on the economy – not just of California and the USA but also globally. For instance one of the experts made a case that the gold rush was critical for the Industrial Revolution in the UK. If there had not been more people with more money to buy the goods that the newly mechanised UK industry was producing then it would not have happened so fast or so succesfully.

The gold rush also affected the culture of the USA. For instance the American Dream mythology began as a spiritual Puritan vision of the City on the Hill being a shining beacon of virtue for the rest of the world to look up to. But after the gold rush this changes to a more material idea – you don’t go to the USA (or to the West Coast) to live the best life you can, you go to get rich quick. California still occupies this sort of cultural space – you go to California to [find gold]/[be a film star]/[join a tech startup] (delete as appropriate). Hollywood and Silicon Valley are the descendants of the strike it lucky & get rich quick ethos of the gold rush.

Towards the end of the programme they talked a little about the role of women in this era of California’s history. The main point they brought out was that there weren’t many women, and so in some ways their social capital was higher than in other parts of the USA. The example used was that divorce was easier for a woman to initiate. I’d’ve liked it if they’d spent a bit more time on this – my notes that I’m writing this up from say that I thought they had more to say about the knock-on effects of this on modern US society.

In Our Time: The War of 1812

I knew that there was a war in 1812, but it was mixed up in my head with Napoleon & Moscow and I wasn’t really sure who was fighting in the 1812 war … but it turns out it was a war between the British & the United States of America. My lack of knowledge of it seems to be indicative of how important it actually was to the UK (as opposed to the US) but that’s getting ahead of the story a bit. The experts who discussed it on In Our Time were Kathleen Burk (University College London), Lawrence Goldman (University of Oxford) and Frank Cogliano (University of Edinburgh).

The programme was split into three sections – first the context, then the war itself and then a brief discussion of the aftermath & what the war meant to the countries involved. A major part of the context is the on-going war between Britain and France. Partly it was fought via trying to force the US to trade with one or the other party, and imposing sanctions when they disobeyed. But another part of that context is that the British were in dire need of sailors to man their warships, so pursued deserters (or those they could tenuously claim had deserted) even when said men were no longer British citizens. So British Navy ships would stop US ships in international waters, and board them to look for “deserters” who’d then get taken back & put to work in the British Navy. But these so-called deserters may not’ve been deserters at all and may’ve become naturalised US citizens. Or maybe were US born US citizens who’d been impressed into the British Navy at some point in the past despite not being British.

The incidents that actually kicked off the war were two fold – reflecting both parts of this context. Firstly the British said that the US was no longer allowed to sell salted fish to the West Indies, because the British wanted the Canadians to supply it instead (which would keep the money in the Empire). And a US warship (as opposed to a US merchant ship) was boarded by British Navy forces, 4 men were killed and 4 “deserters” including native born US citizens taken off to the Navy. These insults combined with a sense that if the US didn’t defend its honour then it would be forever walked over by other countries, lead to the US declaring war on Britain.

The war itself Bragg described as desultory. Not many battles, the biggest battle actually happened after peace had been negotiated (in Belgium) but before the two forces in America could be told. There were three main areas where there was fighting – Canada, the Great Lakes region, and the Atlantic ocean/coastline. The US believed at the outset of the war that would be able to just march some of their militia into Canada and the Canadians would lay down their arms and join the US – not entirely a foolish idea for the US, they’d just acquired part of Florida through a similar campaign. But the Canadians didn’t, and the US invasion was pushed back. An attempted land invasion of the US by Canadian militia met equally little success though – both militias being good at defending their own territory but less good at invading.

In the Great Lakes region of the US the British were backing the Native Americans, in particular the Shawnee who tried to unite the various Native American tribes to push the white settlers out of their lands. This was ultimately unsuccessful even with British backing, and this conflict was a major factor in the later campaigns against the Native Americans pushing them out of their lands (including the Trail of Tears). Andrew Jackson who was president when the later persecution of Native Americans was carried out became a war hero during this war partly because of his successful battles against the Creek Indians.

The naval arena was the area where the British had by far the upper hand – their army was bigger too, but the British Navy was the première Navy in the world at this time. However two of the biggest successes for the US came in this area. The Battle of Baltimore, which has been memorialised by the poem that turned into the national anthem of the US (the Star Spangled Banner), and the Battle of New Orleans which occurred just after the peace treaty was signed. However the British did have successes as well – they successfully captured Washington after the local militia fled from the British Army force (that heavily outnumbered them as well as being better trained & armed). Originally the intent was to levy a fine (I think that’s what they said) as an indication that the town was captured, but as the Army marched into the town under a white flag they were fired upon – at which point they put to death the people in the house which had fired on them, and burnt down the various government buildings including the Presidential Palace & the Library of Congress. The experts were keen to point out that with the exception of the house which had fired on the army there was no damage done to civilian buildings.

The war came to an end after about 3 years mainly because the tensions that had lead to it went away – Napoleon was no longer ruler of France and Britain was no longer at war with France. Which meant that they weren’t so worried about US trade, nor were they so worried about tracking down deserters. Public opinion in Britain was also against the war – as being a waste of money & men, for no good reason. Peace was negotiated at a meeting in Belgium, and Burk summarised the treaty as saying not much of anything – nothing had changed since before the war & the treaty didn’t really mention any of the things that the war had been about. The other two disagreed with that as a general statement – but they did agree that from the point of view of Britain Burk was right.

From the point of view of the US this had been much more significant – it was almost a second War of Independence, and they felt they had asserted their right to be treated as a sovereign country. And as the news of one of their biggest victories in the war (in New Orleans) reached the majority of the country at the same time as news of peace did, it looked awfully like they’d won the war. Rather than it having been a bit of a damp squib that fizzled out. And from the point of view of the Native Americans it had been a disaster, which lead to public support for their persecution.